Phase one of elephant center done
By Jessica Tuggle
FELLSMERE -- The 225-acre property of the National Elephant Center is quiet except for some last-minute construction checks, but standing in the gigantic galvanized metal barn, it's easy to imagine the sound of trumpeting elephants wafting through the air.
Last week, local government officials, the media, business owners and some members of the public were invited to tour a completed portion of the National Elephant Center in Fellsmere and were told elephants could amble onto the property as soon as this summer.
The $2.5 million project, only the first phase of the center, includes a large barn with paddocks, an animal keeper work center, and more than 20 acres of four interconnected pastures with watering holes, mud wallows, dust bathing areas and shade.
Up to nine elephants could be housed with the space currently available, center staff said.
More than 70 Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited zoos have banded together to create the National Elephant Center to provide a new model for elephant care and management. The organization's goal is to improve the elephant population's long-term viability and welfare, a press release said.
Both Asian and African elephants will eventually be housed at the elephant center, said John Lehnhardt, executive director of the center.
Just last year, Fellsmere City Councilman Fernando Herrera came out to the property approximately three miles north and west of downtown Fellsmere and all he could see were orange trees and other native plants.
With the strongly fenced pastures now outlined, and the 13,000 square-foot barn standing as tall as 30 feet at the top, Councilman Herrera is quite impressed with the project's progress.
"I think it's awesome," he said. "This is the perfect place for the animals. They are not going to bother anyone and it's a nice place for them with the weather." Councilman Herrera said.
"I don't get tired of looking at this barn, I'm really impressed," Councilman Herrera said.
Jeff Bolling, the chief operating officer of the elephant center, oversaw the construction of phase one, carried out by MH Williams Construction Group of Melbourne.
In order to build a facility strong enough to hold the largest land mammals in the world, construction crews dug a deep trench and laid down 8-foot wide concrete footers to form a secure foundation. Vertical poles were then bolted to the footers, secured with more concrete, topped with layers of dirt 3-foot deep, and connected to other metal beams in the roof, Mr. Bolling said.
"It's a proven method of containing elephants," he said.
The barn has manual doors for the keepers to operate and keep elephants separate from each other if needed.
"Everything here is so big, even the nuts and bolts are more than twice the normal size," said Beth Mitchell, executive director of the Sebastian River Area Chamber of Commerce.
Mr. Lehnhardt said he was incredibly excited to be able to show off the project progress because it has been just an idea for so long, but now its reality.
"I'm a very happy man today," he said with a grin. "Elephants need a future, and we're looking forward to a wonderful future here."
Up to this point, the great majority of the funding for the project has come from the zoos and several generous donors, but moving forward fundraising will have to be a big focus in order for expansion to occur, center staff said.
The elephant center is not a sanctuary like Save The Chimps in Fort Pierce, but rather it is a support center, said Keith Winsten, board chairman for the center.
The center will not be open to the public, but will offer training for both elephants and elephant keepers, and occasionally be open to education programs to raise awareness about elephants and the work at the center.
For more information about the National Elephant Center, visit www.nationalelephantcenter.org.